Tuesday, May 23, 2023

On Creativity; or, the Grand Art

FMA does a good magic circle


The post to follow is my methodology for basically any creative endeavor - the answer to "how do you do it?". It's a semi-conscious process, and one that's really only been laid out in concrete terms while writing / revising this essay (which has taken entirely too damn long and entirely too many revisions), and it took me like six months and a fortuitous shower thought to realize that if I spun out the mess in my head into discrete steps it is nearly word-for-word the FMA principles of alchemy. That transmutation circle ain't just for show, it's symbolic. Alchemy all the way down. Cue the theme music.

(God, FMA is still so good.)

The Three Stages

  • Comprehension - I take the source material, whatever it might be, and I hone in on the components that it consists of and how they connect.
  • Deconstruction - I pull out the components I like / find interesting.
  • Reconstruction - I build something new out of those components, arranging them in a different way and re-laying to connections between them.

Easy enough to start, let's get things rolling.

Comprehension & Deconstruction

The first two steps are so inter-connected that they are applied together - I can't really comprehend the thing without looking at the parts inside.

First you have the Text. This is the artistic work as a whole and it primarily comes into the foreground when analyzing the relationship between the Text, its creator(s), the temporal context of its creation, and the assorted other external circumstances that surround it.

Example: Star Wars is a Text. Dealing with Star Wars at the Text level will include looking at how it was shaped by the ideas of Joseph Campbell (boo, hiss), how it was a response to and divergence from other science fiction of the time, and the overall zeitgeist of the late 70s in film.

Discrete parts of the Text are the Ideas. Characters, locations, events, elements of the setting and plot, all of these get bundled under Ideas.

(In the war of Lumpers and Splitters, and in this regard I lean Splitter. Or a Splunter. Every Lump can be Split down into a family of related components, and it is often very conveniant to organize things on a general level and then descend into specifics as you need to.)

Example: Luke Skywalker is an Idea.

Ideas can be broken down into constituent parts, which form our third and final layer of Components, which are the parts of an Idea that are directly portrayed within a Text.

Example: Luke Skywalker includes the following Components

  • Disaffected youth
  • Longing for adventure
  • Occupation: Moisture farmer
  • Location - Tatooine
  • Connection: Uncle Owen & Aunt Beru
  • Connection: Anakin Skywalker (father, presumed deceased)

Tatooine itself is spun off into its own set of components (where people are from is a vital component of who they are.)

  • Desert world
  • Settler-Indigenous conflict
  • Imperial presence
  • Interstellar truckstop
  • Shithole in the ass-end of nowhere

We're not going the TV Tropes route here. No cutesey names: Components should be functional and descriptive. Writing them out like this in a list is primarily to show how it works in my head and is only representational, not accurate. And, of course, different people will gravitate towards different components they want to focus on.

Next is Reconstruction where all the fun happens. 


One More Thing...

Sticking to Star Wars as my example might give the impression that this process is neat and orderly: it is not. All those Ideas and Components are thrown into an enormous sargasso soup pot to simmer together and intermingle.

A more accurate interpretation of the process is, to channel a random example:

macuahuitl uses obsidian need active volcanism aztec association rainforest association heavy mesoamerican association deviations from cultural coding noteworthy let's try that alternatives polynesia pacific northwest japan iceland mount etna prison of typhon location of hephaestus' forge religious ceremonial usage warrior priesthood let's bring japan back in mediterranean climate rocky archipelago shugendo and other strange syncretic buddhist sects in the mountains vesuvius also in italy pompeii and herculaneum add buried city at base of mountain necropolis specify relationship of priests to the dead later right this is enough to get started don't forget typhon

Accurate, but not great for a full post unless I want to turn As I Lay Dying into an RPG. 



There are a lot of ways to reconstruct our pile of Components.

Cross-Pollination - Dipping into our Sargasso Soup and transplanting Components and Ideas between bowls is a vital part of the exercise - if you aren't mixing your influences, you're just repeating what you started with and that's boring as sin.

Example: If we dip into the 'Hard sci-fi' bowl, Hoth is now not simply an ice world, but a Titanian ice world with a hazy, hydrocarbon-rich atmosphere and lakes of liquid methane. How might this change the events that take place there?

Association - Drawing a link between an Idea or Component to something outside of the Text. Sometimes there will be an association already extant in the source material and we're just bringing it to the spotlight

Example: Leia's a space princess in space feudalism, we can make an association to the Rear Palace of Imperial China where there's a formalized system where daughters of nobility are sent to be concubines to the emperor (both as a way to jockey for the favor of the emperor, and as a way of keeping the lower nobles in line) - Since Leia is out and about having space adventures, if I make this association I'm also going to add an elder Organa sister.

Connective Tissue - Drawing a link between Ideas and Components that did not originally have a link in the Text.

Example: Jabba smuggles equipment, goods, and people underneath the nose of the Empire - therefore the Rebellion is probably in deep with him and those like him, and that's going to cause trouble in the future.

(Aside - Association and Connective Tissue are basically the same thing, I split them up because there's a difference between "This element is similar to the storming of the Bastille" and "this element is directly connected to the storming of the Bastille.")

Exegesis - Taking Ideas and Components and extrapolating further detail from the other information that is provided to us in the Text. This is probably my favorite of the lot, as it allows you to get to some really interesting places just by going 'Well if X is true, then it only makes sense that Y is as well.'

Some examples:

  • Luke, growing up where he did, should probably have an accent, one that likely leads to most of the Alderaani troops to dismiss him as a hick.
  • Luke, growing up where he did, probably had a hell of a time adjusting to Yavin (humidity, all that green, insects, etc)
  • Luke sharing a last name with a famous war hero is pretty conspicuous unless Skywalker is used as the generic name for slaves, orphans, bastards and people who don't traditionally have family names. A Jon Snow type name. There are ten billion Skywalkers in the galaxy.
  • On that note, it's weird that Uncle Owen is not a Skywalker, and that leaves us with several options:
    • Option A) Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru aren't actually Luke's aunt and uncle, he just calls them that.
    • Option B) Owen married into Beru's family and took her surname of Lars.
    • Option C) Beru is Anakin's sister.

It is a rabbit hole and should be treated as such, but it's so much fun.

Execution - How Ideas and Components are presented to the audience. This isn't about introducing new material, but how to arrange what is already there to get a different emotional response from the audience.

Example: There are a whole lot of ways to frame the death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Not all of them work in the framing of an ordinary feature-length film, but that's the principle in action - changes in medium necessitate changes in execution.

Refocusing - Part of Execution. Drawing the audience's focus to aspects of the Text not typically focused upon.

Example: Viewing the Galactic Civil War from the point of view of the aliens who were excluded from Republic politics, devastated during the Clone Wars, oppressed by the empire, and don't think too highly of a bunch of privileged human Core Worlders asking for their help to restore a government that didn't do shit for them.

Deviating from the Path - Storytelling often relies on familiar patterns. Purposefully deviating from those patterns can lead to some positive results, even if you don't stick the landing exactly.

Example: An actual one that has happened this time - Legend of the Galactic Heroes, like any good thief of Star Wars, has its own Death Star in the form of the Iserlohn Fortress. Instead of destroying it, however, the Free Planets Alliance captures it, and possession of the fort and its hyperlane chokepoint position flips back and forth between sides across the whole of the series. Its raw destructive power is of secondary importance to the way possession of the thing shapes events around it.

Final Thoughts

Finally, the damn thing is out of my draft doc. Not even sure if it's any use to anyone, but I need to get back into just slinging stuff on here without worrying if it's good or game-changing.


  1. This was initially the prelude to a still-simmering essay on fixing the worst monster I have ever found in RPGs.

  2. Replies
    1. I'll get that fix-the-worst post done eventually, I promise.

  3. Really interesting to see how you break this process up. Thanks!